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July 27, 2012

Quebec students march again

Reuel S. Amdur

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Quebec's student strike is serving as an inspiration for university students elsewhere as well. Ottawa university students are wearing the red square, marching, and getting arrested, even if at the moment the Ontario echo is, to mix metaphors, but a trickle.

The Quebec protest was triggered by a budget Premier Jean Charest presented in the National Assembly, with a provision to increase university tuition by 75% over five years, in annual increments of $325.  After all, the argument goes, Quebec students have it pretty good: the lowest rates in the country, $2,168 for residents, on average.

That position has a superficial reasonableness about it, but it is not the whole story.  Many students have difficulty getting by with tuition at its current level.  Most work while studying full time.  Being hit in the face with a promise of an increase in tuition of 75% is hard to take.  Charest would not dare to do that with hydro.  And there is a history of student militancy and strikes.  He should have been aware that he was playing with fire.

Quebec’s history is another factor to consider.  As recently as 1990, tuition stood at $540, and in 1966, the Parent Commission on Education called for the elimination of university tuition.  That has certainly not been the way things have been going.

Comparing Quebec rates of tuition to those across Canada and the United States ignores the fact that Quebeckers have one eye here and the other on Europe, especially France.  Public universities in France have no tuition fees, just an annual enrollment fee of around $546 Canadian.  You would be hard put to find any European university charging as much as Quebec does.

Student strikers put many universities and junior colleges (CEGEPs) across Quebec in virtual disarray.  Their movements put tens of thousands on the street.  The government responded by cancelling classes till August 13 and by enacting draconian limitations of questionable constitutionality on the right to protest, with huge fines for violations.

Defiantly, students are fighting the limitations in court, with support even from those who may not be sympathetic to their larger cause.  And, showing that they are still around, the students held large marches and rallies on July 22 in Montreal and elsewhere in the province.  CLASSE, one of the student organizations involved, is calling for massive picketing of the schools on the planned reopening on August 13.

The student organizations seem committed to a fight to the end.  That would be a mistake.  People will eventually begin to drift away.  Even back in May, students at the CEGEP à l’Outaouais voted to go back to classes. The organizations need to have as plan to end the strike.  They have rung some concessions from Charest, extending the planned increases in tuition over seven years rather than five, increasing student loans and bursaries, etc.  Any movement needs to have gains in order to keep morale up for the longer struggle.  These concessions, along with the fact that they drove the Minister of Education Lise Beauchamp from government, should be the basis for declaring a partial victory.  Then the student organizations need to consolidate their movement for the long haul and look forward to future actions.  The alternative can only be defeat, bitterness, and disillusionment. 

At this writing, Charest is expected to call an election on August 1, for September.  On the issue of the tuition battle, most Quebeckers support him, but there are other issues at play, such as government corruption involving the construction industry.  At least a couple of the student groups are planning to meet the challenge of the election by campaigning against Charest’s Liberals in ten ridings where they are thought to be vulnerable.  The Parti Québécois has supported the students, as has Québec Solidaire, a separatist party further to the left which has one seat in the National Assembly.  Since well fewer than half of young Quebeckers voted in the last election, a campaign successful in getting them to vote could be a game-changer.

On the other hand, one has to reckon with fatigue.  As noted, most students with a full load at school also work part-time.  School itself may be more demanding at this point, what with making up for time lost during the strike.

Can they pull off the election ploy?  Can the student organizations form a permanent collaboration for future action? Can they decide on a common back-to-school strategy?  These are the key questions facing the movement.

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